Despite recent acclaim for Courtney Barnett, the representation of female instrumentalists at our major music awards remains dismal. Diana Wolfe questions why women who play instruments still struggle to find recognition, credibility and awards success in Australia.
This essay was first published in Aphra magazine (no longer in publication) on 28 September 2015.
Beyond the Third Fret
by Diana Wolfe
In the October 2014 edition of Uncut magazine, Jack White of The White Stripes bemoaned the gender disparity in the US music industry, highlighting the ‘novelty’ factor of seeing women instrumentalists on stage.
“When you have all-female acts or female front people, there’s a different perception. It’s sort of a real shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument – a guitar or drums or something – it’s almost a novelty to people, like ‘Oh isn’t that cute?’,” he said.
However, while this sexist attitude is also rife throughout the Australian music scene, few are calling it out.
With the most recent exception of Melbourne guitarist-singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, our female musicians always have been—and still are—overlooked and excluded here.
And apart from an occasional mention of the lack of women invited to perform at major festivals and the lack of fair treatment for female artists, nobody really talks about it.
Of the many examples of gender inequality in music, perhaps the most insidious is the ongoing under-representation of female musicians in major awards ceremonies.
Industry awards are critical for an artists’ career because of the direct and lasting impact on their credibility, profile, music sales, future opportunities and career longevity. For example, winning an Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) award generates enormous attention for an artist and can significantly boost sales and chart performance.
As recently as 2014, Head of Artists and Repertoire (A&R) at Mushroom Music Publishing, Linda Bosidis, said the Australian music industry is in a ‘time warp’ when it comes to gender equality.
‘Yep, too many dudes!’ says Bosidis. ‘Music awards are where cracks appear… (and) this extends to the negligible number of women featured in the media, represented on boards, music conferences and panels and in A&R positions for labels and publishers, music critics, journalists and radio station programmers.’
Bosidis’s view is supported by the facts: a review of our five largest music awards reveals not just cracks, but a gaping chasm. You can count on one hand the number of female instrumentalists who have featured in these ceremonies. Remove the female vocalists and guitarists, and there are almost no women at all.
Take a look at the ARIA Hall of Fame: of the 75 artists, bands and music industry figures inducted since 1988, only one is a female musician: Jill Birt, keyboard player with The Triffids from 1983–1989*. Apart from 10 female vocalists**, the Hall of Fame inductees are men and all-male bands.
Just some of the notable female musicians missing from the Hall of Fame are multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and screenwriter-composer Johanna Pigott, best known for co-writing Dragon’s Rain and John Farnham’s Age of Reason. When Age of Reason topped the Australian charts in July 1988, Pigott became the first Australian woman to have written a number 1 hit.
Drummer Lindy Morrison played with seminal indie rock band The Go Betweens from 1980 to 1989. She’s also a social activist who has made a significant contribution to recording musicians’ rights through her involvement in the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia. In 2013 she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services as a performer and advocate. She’s a Lifetime Honorary Member of the Music Council of Australia, and won the 2014 Ted Albert Award for Outstanding Services to Australian Music.
Award-winning rock-pop guitarist-songwriter-singer Deborah Conway was a founding member of 1980s band Do-Ré-Mi, which had a hit with the song Man Overboard. Conway had a top 20 hit single with It’s Only the Beginning, and won the 1992 ARIA for Best Female Artist. She organised and performed on the Broad Festivals from 2005 to 2008 show-casing contemporary Australian female artists, and continues to perform, write and record.
Adelaide performer Sister Janet Mead soared to international stardom in 1974 with her rock-gospel recording of The Lord’s Prayer. A surprise hit, it reached number 3 on the Australian singles chart and number 4 on the US Billboard Top 100, as well as earning her a Grammy Award nomination and an Australian Yamaha Golden Gospel Award. Sister Mead was a classically trained pianist and an acoustic guitarist who believed that ‘rock masses’ were a powerful way to make Catholicism more accessible to her students. She recorded three albums of rock-gospel music and was performing and working as a musical director into the 2000s. Arguably, she was as much of a pioneer on the Australian Christian-gospel music scene as influential guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was on the US crossover blues-rock-gospel scene.
It’s the same throughout all the other mainstream music awards, with no sign of change despite the recent wave of outstanding female musicians to rock our stages.
Of the 28 times the ARIA Album Of The Year has been awarded, only two solo female musicians have won in this category: Kasey Chambers and Missy Higgins. Even when you include line-ups with female instrumentalists, there have been only two winners—Baby Animals (Suze DeMarchi, guitar) and Angus & Julia Stone (Julia, guitar and trumpet).
The Best Group ARIA has only twice been won by a band that includes a female musician—The Black Sorrows in 1990, featuring Jen Anderson on violin, and Sheppard in 2014, featuring sisters Amy and Emma Sheppard on harmonica and bass, respectively.
The APRA-AMCOS Art Music Awards 2015 finalists’ list included just three women among 32 men in seven of the major categories, while the prestigious $30,000 Australian Music Prize has never been awarded to a solo female musician in its 11-year history.
This pattern was repeated across the nominees for the 2014 Carlton Dry Independent Music Awards: just 15 of the 130 musicians nominated in the indie band / artist categories were women. Of the 155 artists nominated for The Age Music Victoria Genre Awards in 2014, only 11 were female instrumentalists.
It’s a baffling phenomenon that can’t be explained away by a lack of talent, ability, ambition or worthiness. From speaking with a number of accomplished and respected local female musicians, the reasons are complex, culturally entrenched, and rarely discussed.
In a music career spanning more than 20 years, nine albums, numerous film soundtracks and international performances, acclaimed blues and roots vocalist and rhythm guitarist Kerri Simpson has seen some positive developments.
‘There has been enormous change in some areas of the industry; in some genres women are evenly represented and those playing in bands are no longer the rarity they were in the seventies,’ she says.
In other areas, however, she says it’s as lopsided as ever.
‘Much remains as it was decades ago. For example, there are still very few women in studio or live music production,’ Simpson laments.‘It saddens me that my teenage daughter, who plays guitar, bass, drums, sings and composes, experiences exactly the same kind of bullying and humiliation from boys as I did when I was doing my first gigs.’
Rachel By The Stream is a Melbourne-based Electronic Dance Music (EDM) composer, musician and singer, who performed at the prestigious UK Glastonbury Festival in 2013. She sees the lack of representation of women at EDM festivals as a major challenge.
‘Open an EDM festival program and 95% of the artists are male… page after page of male faces staring at you,’ Rachel says.
Folk songwriter-guitarist Helen Begley sees more women than ever participating on stages around the country. However, her experiences show that no matter how accomplished women musicians are, once they’re on stage with men they often retreat.
‘Recently, I shared the stage with two fellas who are songwriters and guitarists. We took it in turns to do a song each. As we got into the gig, the dynamic began to shift and I found myself giving ground… I stopped taking my turn, I deferred to them, I began to believe that I had nothing to contribute that would stand up beside their soul-driven blues songs.
‘I’ve noticed this dynamic time and time again; women retreating from the musical space and blokes claiming the vacated territory. Once women have disappeared, it is quite a battle to reclaim that space.’
To hear classically-trained jazz-blues guitarist Jen Hawley in action, with her sublime feel and nuanced solos, you’d never guess she was once lacking in confidence. However, when she first started playing in bands, she felt she didn’t measure up against her male peers.
‘People used to say, ‘you’re only here to pick up guys’,’ she says. In the 1990s she started going to jazz and blues jam sessions to challenge her playing and stage skills. ‘I found it terrifying,’ she says. ‘The guys would play songs in a tempo or key that I couldn’t keep up with. I soon stopped going along.’
Running her own music school, Hawley finds that girls tend to hang back and play alone, whereas the boys tend to practise their scales and share ideas, chords and music at rehearsals.
‘The fact that so few women play instruments on stage makes it harder for girls to come up through the industry,’ says Hawley. ‘You don’t often see women guitarists shredding or going up beyond the third fret. What’s lacking for a lot of girls is the confidence and resilience to keep playing, and to step up and take solos.’
Where the music industry fails to even identify sexism as an issue, other arts sectors have responded by introducing women-only awards such as the Stella Prize for female authors and the Portia Geach Memorial Award for fine artists.
Author Clare Wright says winning the 2014 Stella Prize has given her book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, an enormous sales boost but also, importantly, it has elevated the status of women’s writing in Australia and overseas.
‘Since winning, my book automatically started being displayed more prominently in stores, I’ve seen a verifiable increase in sales, and it has received massive media attention,’ Wright says.
While lobbying for an all-female music award is one approach, another might be to shake up existing award categories. For example, the AU Review Music Awards don’t have gender-based categories. Instead they present awards for diverse musical styles, instrumental prowess, live performance and touring success. In their first year, 2014, it was encouraging to see a number of female musicians among the nominees and major winners such as Courtney Barnett, who won three awards including Guitarist of the Year.
However, we still need to advocate for wider change. If the music industry itself doesn’t recognise its gender bias, women instrumentalists will continue to be ignored. The fact that they are largely absent from major awards means that they’re not on our radar, so we don’t buy their music, go to their gigs or vote for them in awards and Top 100 lists. It’s a self-perpetuating problem.
At best, it may slowly resolve itself through broader community efforts to level out the gender imbalance across all industries, or through the new groundswell of women musicians such as Barnett, Clare Bowditch, Mia Dyson and others.
At worst, it will continue to stymie hundreds of talented girls and women in their pursuit of a career in contemporary music, and deny them the opportunity to achieve wider success, for years to come.
- Why is the Australian Live Music Scene Such a Boys Club? By Sylvie Leber
- Why Ladies Sing The Blues by Diana Wolfe
- Jack White: It’s a shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument it’s almost a novelty, Uncut magazine, October 2014
* Jill Yates played keyboard for The Triffids, briefly, in 1982.
** Dame Joan Sutherland, Dame Nellie Melba, The Seekers (Judith Durham), Olivia Newton John, Renee Geyer, Helen Reddy, Marcia Hines, Little Pattie, Kylie Minogue, Tina Arena.